Do political parties come within the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act?
The issue which has raised the hackles of political parties came to a head on June 3, 2013, when a full bench of the Central Information Commission (CIC), led by the chief information commissioner, Satyananda Mishra and Information Commissioners ML Sharma and Annapurna Dixit read out a landmark judgement: "We have no hesitation in concluding that INC/AICC, BJP, CPI(M), CPI, NCP and BSP have been substantially financed by the Central government and, therefore, they are held to be public authorities under Section 2(h) of the RTI Act."
This judgment set the cat among the pigeons. The judgment has far-reaching implications on the functioning of political parties.
This cascade of events began with two petitions filed by two civil society activists, Anil Bairwal, national co-ordinator of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), and Subhash Chandra Aggarwal. Anil Bairwal in his RTI application filed in October 2010 had sought from the six national parties - Indian National Congress (INC), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) - details on the modes and amounts of donations received by them. Similarly, Subhash Chandra Aggarwal, in his May 2011 application, had sought similar information from the BJP as well as the Congress.
The CIC judgment set off a major public debate on the applicability of the term 'public authority' to political parties. The Congress and BJP refused to part with the information, saying they did not come under the purview of the RTI Act. CPI was the only party that chose to respond, though only partly, giving Bairwal a list with the details of some of the major voluntary contributors. All the national parties argued that they are not 'public authorities' and therefore not liable to disclose information regarding their funding.
As per section 2(h) of the Right to Information Act, 2005, the term 'public authorities' refers to: any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted – a) by or under the Constitution; b) by any other law made by Parliament; c) by any other law made by State Legislature; d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate Government, and includes any – i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed; ii) non-Governmental organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate Government.
Hence, as can be seen, 'substantially financed' is the operative term here. To prove their point that the six national parties are 'substantially financed' by the central government, Bairwal's petition furnished a list of benefits the parties in question received from the central government.
The six parties – Indian National Congress (INC), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)), Communist Party of India (CPI) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) – were given tax exemption totaling Rs 510.02crore. The six and RJD were given free air time in the state-run media services, Doordarshan and All India Radio, to the tune of Rs 21.46 crore and 28.56 lakh, respectively, during Lok Sabha sessions in 2009.
Further, the Congress, BJP, CPI, CPI(M), together with five other parties were allotted plots within New Delhi by the central government, whose value amounts to Rs 2556.03 crore. Hence, parties can in no way reject the charge of their being 'substantially financed' by the central government, and are hence 'public authorities', as per the RTI Act, 2005.
Though the counsel for the parties tried to argue that they did not come under the RTI Act, the CIC bench would have none of it. The CIC concluded that "it would be odd to argue that transparency is good for all State organs but not so good for political parties, which, in reality, control all the vital organs of the State." Indeed, it is the political parties which control all state organs, and therefore, they should be held equally accountable.
All the major political parties are in denial. AITMC is the only major party which has fully supported this judgment, making itself open to full public scrutiny. As a Rajya Sabha MP told the media, "Let us embrace RTI ourselves and not just recommend it for others… The parties need to be transparent about their accounts and sources of funding and share these on multiple platforms, besides submitting them to the Election Commission."
The two activists are understandably elated at the landmark judgment. They have said the order would go long way in promoting transparency and accountability in the way political parties are run in the country. Other civil society activists all over have defended the CIC decision and have protested any amendments to the act to protect political parties. Social activist Aruna Roy and Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan activist Nikhil Dey held a day-long protest at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi against the proposed amendment of the RTI Act
However, most political parties are in no mood to give in, including the Congress which has been credited with bringing in the transparency law. The Union Cabinet cleared amendments to Section 2 of the RTI Act and the government tabled the Ordinance during the monsoon session of Parliament. The amendments state that designating political parties as public authorities under the RTI Act would "hamper their smooth internal functioning since it will encourage political rivals to file RTI applications with malicious intentions". These amendments are simply meant to help political parties wriggle out of answering RTI queries.
Ajit Ranade, founder-member of ADR, in an interview to The Hindu opined that the RTI Act is meant to promote transparency and accountability in the functioning of public entities (hence, entities which impact lives of citizens). So there is no reason political parties should be kept out of it. As Aruna Roy said in an interview to Mint, "They have become judges in their own court (Parliament), in their own case and have delivered their own judgment."
If the amendments, which have now been referred to the Standing Committee of the Parliament, get passed, the whole purpose of the act would get defeated. Political parties would no longer remain answerable to RTI queries.